Stoic Philosophy & the Art of Self-Mastery

5 July 2016

Stoic Philosophy – The art of self-mastery    Dr. Kurt Lampe, Senior Lecturer, University of Bristol

What is Stoicism

  1. ANCIENT PHILOSOPHICAL MOVEMENT ca. 280 BCE  to 250 CE centering on the stoa poikile (“painted colonnade”) in Athens
    • later in Rhodes and Rome
    • Anglo-American neo-Stoicism
    • Continental neo-Stoicisms


What is self-mastery?

“Free is the person who lives as she wishes and cannot be coerced, impeded or compelled, whose impulses cannot be thwarted, who always gets what she desires and never has to experience what she’d rather avoid.” (Epictetus, Discourses 4.1.1, trans. Dobbin)


Antiquity as slave-owning society

Metaphorical “enslavement” to: circumstances; other people; fear, doubt, regret, etc.

Self-mastery requires

(a) changing your values               

 (b) wholeheartedly


“The human soul harms itself when  it becomes ... an abscess and a sort of morbid growth in the universe. For to set your mind against anything that happens is to set yourself apart from nature, which subsumes the nature of all other things. ... The goal for all rational creatures is to conform to the reason and law of the most venerable of cities and constitutions[, i.e. the cosmic polity of god.]” (Marcus Aurelius, 2.16, trans. R. Hard)

Recognizing and acquiescing to “natural law”

Being a good “citizen of the world” (Greek kosmopolitēs)

integrating yourself into beauty and order: becoming at home in the world


How can I  achieve self-mastery?

Learning key practical doctrines, and confirming them with strong arguments

E.g. It’s not important to accomplish things in the world, but to choose and strive gracefully, nobly, beautifully, etc.

Meditative exercises

E.g. morning mental preparation

“Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, “treacherous, malicious and unsociable people. They are subject to these defects because they completely misunderstand what is good and what is bad” (Marcus Aurelius, 2.1)

Compare cognitive-behavioral therapy, which was partly inspired by Stoicism

Relationships and Social Reinforcement

“Avoid non-philosophers’ parties. If you can’t, be careful not to sink to their level. Because, you know, if someone’s dirty, his friends can’t help getting a little dirty too, no matter how they started out” (Epictetus, Manual 33.6)


Two moments in neo-stoicism

  1. Michel Foucault 1926-1984: Rethinking the interlocking problems of knowledge, power, and identity

The issues of “power” and “identity” are important for the pursuit of self-mastery

Foucault turned to the Stoics for inspiration


  1. Power

“By power, I do not mean ‘Power’ as a group of institutions and mechanisms that ensure that subservience of the citizens of a given state.

By power, I do not mean, eith


er, a mode of subjugation which . . . has the form of a rule. Finally, I do not have in mind a general system of domination exerted by one group over another.... Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (The Will to Knowledge, p. 93).

Not Power as controlling individuals or codes of laws or rules, but power as informal system of ideas, social roles, and routines that control what people think and do, or even what is thinkable or doable

This power makes people feel they aren’t in control, aren’t at home in the world, etc.


Example 1: mental health

Example 2: university management


2. Stoicism as a Source of Inspiration for Regaining “Freedom”

The Care of the Self

“I’m very pleased if you’re well and you think yourself worthy of yourself.... This is what I beg and beseech you, Lucilius, my friend: let philosophy sink into your heart, test your progress not with talk or writing, but by the constancy of your mind, the reduction in your unruly desires. Prove your words with actions.... Philosophy teaches us to act, not to speak. It demands that each person live by his own law, that his life  “shouldn’t conflict with his speech, nor his life with itself; all his actions should have the same color. This is the key task and sign of wisdom, for words to harmonize with deeds, and for you yourself to be the same as yourself in every particular.... So watch yourself...” (Seneca, Letters 20.1-3).

 “Conversion to you


rself” or “self-cultivation” become the core tasks for any person

This gives you a different lever, fulcrum, or entry point into the system of power

Rather than seeking authorized answers to practical questions (e.g....), we ask first about self-consistency in thought and action

Note: The Stoics eschew systematic rules for thought and action; it always requires individual improvisation

“What is involved is liberation ... from what we do not control so as finally to arrive at what we can control.... It does not appear as liberation from the body, but rather as the establishment of a complete, perfect, and adequate relationship of self to self. ... Finally, although knowledge certainly plays an important part, nevertheless it is not so

“decisive and fundamental.... The essential element is much more exercise, practice, and training” (M. Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, p. 211).

Liberation and reasserting control (over oneself)

Control as self-consistency

Not knowledge (possessed by experts), but constant practice and training


B. Bernard Stiegler, 1952- (in brief!)

1. The philosophy of “technics”

Main thesis: Organic systems (anatomical, physiological, psychological) are networked with dynamic social and material systems: critical thinking must address these systems jointly

Examples: chalk board; smart phones

Technologies as pharmaka – magical, medical, poisonous


  1. The problems of alienation and  non-self-mastery are psycho-socio-techno-material problems!

Foucault’s example of Stoic writing exercises:

“These [Stoic notebooks and exchanges of letters]  should not be thought of simply as a memory support, which might be consulted from time to time, as occasion arose; they are not meant to be substituted for a recollection that may fail. They constitute, rather, a material

and a framework for exercises to be carried out frequently: reading, rereading, meditating, conversing with oneself and with others” (M. Foucault, “Writing the Self,”

Foucault’s insight and oversight:

“Now, the care of the self is practical ... that is, always in one way or another technical, the implementation of rules, submission to exercises, etc. This is precisely what Foucault shows in analysing the role of writing in [care], in particular in Seneca’s time. For all that, Foucault never poses the problem of the intrisiquely duplicitous, ambiguous, ambivalent character of the pharmakon, which is not only a remedy and a poison, but the scapegoat.” (B. Stiegler, “Biopower, Psychopower, and the Logic of the Scapegoat,”


Foucault shows how the Stoic care of the self involves psychological and social “circuits”

Foucault also perceives the importance of the material framework

Foucault does not perceive how technologies can be remedies, poisons, or scapegoats

 Again, the example of mobile phones

Any Stoic art of self-mastery today needs to address the dynamic power of technical systems